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The ambiguous life and strange death of soul legend, Sam Cooke

“Well that’s very kind of you, but voices ought not be measured by how pretty they are. Instead, they matter only if they convince you that they are telling the truth.” — Sam Cooke

Ironically, this quote would pose a pivotal question after Cooke’s death. Cooke, a celebrated cultural icon, the ‘King of Soul’ feared death like nothing else. As he once said, “It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die. ‘Cause I don’t know what’s up there, beyond the sky.” As fate would have it, he had to leave for the unknown land at the frightfully young age of 33, leaving behind what he probably hated the most, confusion. On the 56th anniversary of his death, let’s rewind a little and look back at Cooke’s life story.

Cooke was born in Clarksdale Mississippi where music was brewed in the family. Along with his eight siblings, he started his career at the age of six when he joined the Chicago group the Singing Children. This early exposure made him confident and he soon replaced gospel tenor R.H Harris as the lead singer of the gospel group the Soul Stirrers in 1950. Unlike many other contemporary African-American musicians, he didn’t rush into a pop career to increase his popularity. Rather, he attracted young listeners to the gospel genre through his soulful voice and sparkling personality.

During that time, there was a stigma against gospel singers performing secular music. So, when Cooke finally ventured into the pop territory with the release of his single ‘Lovable’ in 1956, he took cover under the pseudonym of ‘Dale Cook’. However, his voice was so well known by that time that he couldn’t dupe anyone for long. Cooke got blessings from the most unpredictable person, his pastor father, for his career in secular music and set out win over the world with his distinct voice: “My father told me it was not what I sang that was important, but that God gave me a voice and musical talent and the true use of His gift was to share it and make people happy.” It was during this time that he changed his name from Cook to Cooke — the additional ‘e’ marked the beginning of his new life.

He got the taste of success promptly after the song ‘You Send Me’ was released as the B-side of ‘Summertime’ in 1957 and ranked number one in both the R&B chart and Billboard pop chart. After having a grand success under the RCA Victor record label for one year with hits like ‘Chain Gang,’ ‘Sad Mood,’ ‘Cupid,’ ‘Bring it on Home to Me’ and so on, Cooke started his own record label SAR Records in 1961. Who knew then that his flourishing career would come to an end so soon.

On 11th December 1964, Cooke was shot dead by the Hacienda Motel’s manager Bertha Franklin in Los Angeles, California. According to Bertha, it was an act of self-defence as earlier in the evening Cooke burst into her office naked except for one shoe and a sports jacket and violently grabbed her asking for a woman. The two struggled and fell on the floor when Bertha got up and procured the gun and shot Cooke out of fear and then hit him on the head with a broomstick. The motel’s owner, Evelyn Carr supported Bertha’s story claiming that she was on the telephone at that time when Cooke invaded Bertha’s office. It was Carr who informed the police after hearing the gunshots.

The woman Cooke was asking for was Elisa Boyer who met Cooke earlier that evening at a diner. After the two spent a good time with one another, Cooke allegedly forced Boyer to accompany him to the motel. Once inside the room, Cooke tried to rape Boyer who fled the scene when Cooke went to use the bathroom. She claimed that in her haste she scooped up Cooke’s clothes along with hers. She knocked on Bertha’s door on her way-out seeking help but rushed out before it was too late and called the police from a nearby telephone booth.

However, witnesses at the Martoni’s Restaurant, where they drank earlier, claimed that Boyer went willingly with Cooke maybe intending to rob him. Though both Bertha and Boyer were declared innocent in the court, which ruled a justifiable homicide, the conspiracy theory regarding Cooke’s death didn’t die out. Cooke’s friends and family never believed that it was an accident, they always claimed that the story was fabricated indicating that some people ganged up and murdered Cooke.

Singer Etta James wrote after viewing Cooke’s body that the injuries he sustained were much serious than the official record stated. He was so violently beaten that his head was nearly separated from his shoulders, his hands were broken and his nose mangled. Bertha received several death threats afterwards and was forced to leave her job and migrate. When Boyer was charged with second-degree murder in 1979 after fighting with a boyfriend, after which he ended up dead, questions were once again raised regarding the legitimacy of the court judgment.

A false claim of rape and molestation is as dreadful and grim as the act of rape or its attempt. One may question the truth in both Bertha and Boyer’s statements but we also must not forget how society treated, as a matter of fact, still treats a rape victim. Their stories are always claimed to be illegitimate and baseless; they are always blamed for the horrible things that happened to them and they are threatened endlessly once they gain the strength and come out with the story.

Cooke’s licentiousness was an open secret. Many women claimed him to be the father of their child. Though he supported them with financial aid, it doesn’t take away the fact that he could have been a potential rapist. Often we turn a blind eye to the nasty side of celebrated figures, but we must view all the details and probable truths as objectively as possible before jumping to a conclusion. While the threads of Cooke’s life and death are confusing in equal measure, one thing that cannot be denied is his impact on culture during his short time at the top of the soul pile.

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